Cracked heart of the old world

For centuries the Germans were at war with a shifting cast of hostile neighbours. Upheavals in the 19th century and two world wars brought about a settlement, but Germany today is both too strong and too weak to assume its rightful position in world polit

The German Reichstag in Berlin. Photograph: Getty Images

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A spectre is once again haunting Europe – the spectre of German power. The past five years have coincided with a remarkable increase in the influence of Germany, which has so far weathered the world economic crisis well and has been reluctant to empower the European Central Bank to embark on the bond-buying spree that the countries of the bankrupt European periphery so crave, prescribing for them a diet of unpalatable fiscal “rules” instead.

It is not surprising, therefore, that this period has also witnessed a surge of political and popular Germanophobia across the continent. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi has made a remarkable electoral comeback by attacking Berlin. In Ireland, long the home of a sneaking regard for Britain’s old rival, the conditions imposed during the bank “bailouts” have led to a surge in hostile media and political commentary. In Greece, which has been taken into financial care by the EU and International Monetary Fund, hatred of Germany – seen as the driving force behind Greek economic “enslavement” – has reached such a pitch that Chancellor Angela Merkel needed the protection of thousands of policemen on her last visit to Athens.

At the same time, there are many who worry that Germany is not using her power actively enough, due to the country’s historically based discomfort with exercising military force. Poland and the Baltic states were deeply unsettled by Berlin’s veto of Ukraine’s entry to Nato in 2008, which increased fears of a security vacuum in eastern Europe. They were further horrified by Merkel’s firm refusal to retaliate when an emboldened Russia invaded Georgia in August that year. The most open confrontation on security issues, however, came in 2011 when Germany abstained on the UN Security Council vote authorising Nato intervention in Libya.

Above all, over the past three years, there have been widespread calls for Germany to take the lead in resolving the escalating euro crisis. The foreign minister of Poland, Radek Sikorski, spoke for many when he remarked, in a speech in Berlin in 2011: “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”

That is the dilemma of German power today – Germany is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.

To historians, none of this is new. The Germans have always been either too weak or too strong. Most people know that the German question goes back at least as far as the two world wars, and they are vaguely aware that its roots can be traced to 19th-century debates about German unification. There is a large and sophisticated scholarly literature on the subject. Very few, however, understand that the “German question”, in various guises, has dominated European history since the mid-15th century.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman empire of the German nation, which spanned the present-day Federal Republic, the Low Countries, Switzerland, Bohemia and Moravia and much of northern Italy, was the focus of furious political contestation. Internally, the emperor confronted the larger principalities, which in turn were fiercely divided among themselves. The German parliament (the Reichstag), representing the nobility and the towns, had long ceased to be an effective forum for the commonweal. Frantic appeals from the Croats and Hungarians for help against the advancing Turks after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 went unheeded.

Despite all attempts by reforming emperors, bureaucrats and intellectuals, Germany remained a fragmented political space. The onset of the Reformation in the early 16th century divided western Christendom between the Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed Churches, splitting the Holy Roman empire right down the middle.

The resulting strategic vacuum at the heart of Europe sucked in powers from all sides. This was partly because Germany lay at the very centre of the continent: more than any other territory, it was traversed by armies fighting for causes that sometimes concerned Germany only tangentially. The French were determined to prevent the Habsburgs from tightening the ring of encirclement around them in Flanders, Burgundy and Spain. England regarded Germany as the buttress of its position in the Low Countries, control of which would allow the French or the Span - iards to descend on the south coast by the shortest route. Spain used the Holy Roman empire as a sally port to attack both the French and the rebellious Dutch. The Swedes sought to establish a buffer in northern Germany to secure themselves from invasion from across the Baltic. The Turks, too, attempted to grapple with western Christendom in a final cataclysmic assault on Germany, until they were repulsed at the gates of Vienna in 1683.

Germany was renowned for its wealth and the quality of its fighting men, many of whom served as mercenaries abroad. For this reason, the European powers were anxious either to secure these resources for themselves or to deny them to their rivals. It became an axiom of European politics that, as one mid-17th-century Swedish diplomat remarked, the area “was a temperate and populous part of the world and . . . there was not a country under the sun in a better position to establish a universal monarchy and absolute dominion in Europe than Germany”. Moreover, the Holy Roman empire was the font of ideological legitimacy in Europe: the imperial crown took precedence over all other monarchies and, in theory at least, conferred the right to rally the resources of Germany and even the whole of the European continent in a common cause. In 1519, for instance, the German imperial election was contested by the three most powerful monarchs: Francis I of France, Henry VIII of England and the victor, Charles of Burgundy.

The quest for the imperial crown continued to drive European politics until the Napoleonic wars, when Bonaparte seriously considered crowning himself Holy Roman emperor. Even the Muslim Ottoman empire was obsessed with seizing the Holy Roman mantle for itself, having staked a claim through the capture of Constantinople.

For this reason, the principal European peace treaties were primarily German settlements. Central Europe was at the heart of the peace treaties of Westphalia signed in 1648, which have lent their name to the whole modern international order. Somewhat misleadingly, because, far from stipulating the sovereign inviolability of states, they constrained German princes from arbitrary action against their subjects in order to forestall another civil war that would invite outside intervention and ignite a European conflagration.

At Westphalia two states, Sweden and France, extracted for themselves a formal recognition as “guarantors” of the Holy Roman empire and thus of the central European territorial order; in the late 18th century, tsarist Russia was granted that privilege as well. This connection between the internal dispensation and the European balance of power also found expression in the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, which brought the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars to an end. It established a German confederation that was designed to be strong enough to keep the internal peace and deter foreign aggressors but was too weak to develop hegemonic ambitions of its own.

The struggle for Germany also drove internal politics across Europe. In England, Ireland and Scotland, the failure of the Stuarts to support the Protestant cause in Germany in effect delegitimised the dynasty and eventually led to the civil war that cost the English Charles I his head. Up to 100,000 Britons fought in the Thirty Years War, even at a time of intense fratricidal conflict at home (recent archaeological evidence has shown that their bones are scattered across central Europe). Throughout the 18th century there was no issue that made or broke more ministries, including those of Robert Walpole and Pitt the Elder, than the state of the Holy Roman empire; indeed, when Britons referred to “the empire” before about 1760 it was Germany they meant, not their overseas colonies. In France, the abject failure of the Bourbons to defend French national interests in the Holy Roman empire and eastern Europe precipitated the revolution that destroyed the country’s monarchy.

During the Thirty Years War, Germany was traumatised by civil conflict and humiliated by foreign armies – Spanish, Danish, Swedish and French, to name only the most prominent – marching back and forth across its territory. The population of the Holy Roman empire dropped from 21 million to just over 13 million people, one of the highest losses in any war ever. Its central European location had nearly become a collective death sentence. Thereafter, as the philosopher Gott - fried Wilhelm Leibniz lamented in 1670, Germany remained “the ball which [the powers] toss to one another . . . the battlefield on which the struggle for mastery in Europe is fought”. During the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, Germans were once again the main victims, fought over, partitioned and conscripted by both sides.

Most Germans resented this fate and many tried to overcome it. They looked with dismay at the haemorrhaging of imperial territories, especially to France; Alsace-Lorraine was the most obvious but by no means the only case. For hundreds of years, reformers struggled to give the Holy Roman empire a constitutional and military structure that would enable the Germans to coexist without outside tutelage. All of these attempts failed, from the activities of the imperial Austrian general Lazarus von Schwendi in the 16th century and Samuel von Pufendorf in the 17th century, through those of Johann Jakob Moser in the 18th century to the liberal nationalists of the early and mid-19th century. It was only when the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck appropriated German nationalism for his own ends, and excluded Austria, that Germany finally found the internal unity that would enable it to deter aggressors, or so it was hoped. Instead, for both structural and behavioural reasons, the new central European state eventually unhinged not merely the continental but also the global order, and was twice crushed by a coalition of great powers.

The united Germany of 1871 was, as Henry Kissinger has put it, “too big for Europe, but too small for the world”. With a population of 41 million people, it was larger than France (36 million), Austria-Hungary (about 36 million) and Britain (31 million). Only the vast tsarist empire could boast an even greater number of subjects (77 million). (In com - parison, the population of Prussia in 1850 had been 16 million.) Moreover, unlike its stagnating French rival, the German popu - lation was rapidly increasing. Harnessed to this demographic motor was a rapidly in - dustrialising economy, the best education system in the world and an army that was second to none.

The Reich was threatened on two sides, however: in the east by Russia, which was on the move again after a long period of passivity, and in the west by France, which remained completely unreconciled to her defeat in 1870-71. From the early 20th century, this fear was aggravated by naval rivalry with Britain and the United States. Moreover, while Germany was territorially static, the British, French and Russian empires and the United States were all huge and expanding empires. To make matters worse still, Germans were emigrating in their millions in search of a better life in the British settler colonies and especially the United States, not only depriving the Reich of their energies but “replenishing” the demographic reservoirs of her potential rivals.

There were different ways of dealing with these challenges and Germany tried all of them without lasting success. Bismarck sought to square the strategic circles through skilful diplomacy – isolating France by making sure that the Reich was always “one of two in a world of three” or “one of three in a world of five”. This tactic worked well for a while, but the strain of making contradictory commitments to her main allies, Russia and Austria-Hungary, was not sustainable in the long run, even if Wilhelm II had not opted so decisively for Vienna and thus driven Paris and St Petersburg together at Germany’s expense. Bismarck’s successor as chancellor, Leo von Caprivi, sought to secure Germany’s position in the world through manufacturing: “Export goods or people”, the slogan went. This strategy was vulnerable to external tariff barriers, however, not least because Germany, too, imposed all kinds of restrictions in deference to strong agricultural lobbies at home. The third option, territorial expansion to compensate that of her mighty rivals, failed most spectacularly of all. It provoked balancing coalitions such as the Triple Entente between Britain, France and the Russian empire, the Grand Alliance during the Second World War and the enmity of the United States, which turned against Berlin out of hemispheric concern over German penetration of Latin America, especially Mexico. Kaiser Wilhelm’s often clumsy Weltpolitik overseas around the turn of the century, imperial Germany’s large-scale territorial ambitions in western and eastern Europe during the First World War and Hitler’s racially driven quest for “living space” in the 1930s and 1940s all ended in disaster.

During this period, the German problem was also at the heart of European domestic politics. In France, the question of how society was to be organised against Germany underlay almost every domestic crisis, from the threat of boulangisme in the late 19th century, through the Dreyfus affair, to the bitter divisions of the 1930s. In Russia, the pan-Slavist movement took aim at German “dominance” from the third quarter of the 19th century. By the outbreak of the First World War, the determination to contain Berlin was so strong in Russian politics that military failure, and the general feeling that the dynasty was secretly pro-German, led to the first Russian revolution of 1917. After the second (Bolshevik) revolution, the question of how to promote a communist uprising in Germany and what to do when it failed to materialise was the central preoccupation of the new government. Only the victory of Stalin’s “socialism in one country” approach over Trotsky’s “world revolution” settled the matter. In Britain, fears of German ambition first surfaced during electoral debates about the “dreadnoughts” in the early 20th century and, as in France, appeasement was the defining issue of the 1930s.

After 1945, the postwar European and global settlement reflected the need to deal with the German question. The United Nations originated as a wartime alliance to defeat Adolf Hitler, a history that is still reflected in the structure of the Security Council, with its five veto-bearing permanent members. Germany lost swaths of territory, especially in the east; millions were either expelled or fled westwards. The rump was divided into four zones of occupation which consolidated as the Federal Republic of Germany in the west and the German Democratic Republic in the east. How to resolve the German question became the principal point of contention during the cold war between western democracies and the communist dictatorships led by the Soviet Union.

It was also the main driving force behind the process of European integration. The European Coal and Steel Community was established to ensure that France and Germany were structurally incapable of going to war with each other again. To Washington, European integration was intended not merely to contain German revanchism, but to mobi - lise the Federal Republic against the Soviet threat. For the Germans, the European project was a vehicle through which they could be rehabilitated politically without frightening either their western partners or themselves.

The political and military integration of the continent through the European Defence Community was blocked by the French parliament in the mid-1950s. Thereafter, the military integration of Europe – including German rearmament – took place within Nato. Economic, political and cultural integration devolved to the European Economic Community, which was founded in 1957 and grew into the European Union. Into the EU, the Germans brought not only their rapidly recovering economy but also much of their premodern political culture, especially a preoccupation with legality, interminable debate and due process, so that the EU increasingly began to resemble the Holy Roman empire.

For about 50 years, the European settlement worked well. Despite considerable anxieties at the time, it survived the collapse of communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification in 1990, which greatly increased the Bundesrepublik’s territorial and demographic weight. It survived in part because it took much longer than expected for the German economy to sort out the mess left by communism, but mainly because the next stages of the European project –the Maastricht Treaty and the introduction of the euro, which superseded the mighty Deutschmark –were speeded up in order to embed the united Germany more firmly in a uniting Europe.

Far from breaking out on its own, the enlarged Federal Republic worked ever more closely with its partners, especially on security, in which it had long lagged. Berlin was a strong supporter of the initial eastern enlargement of Nato and the EU into Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. German forces participated at a late stage in the intervention against ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, they were there from the start in Kosovo, and after the 11 September 2001 attacks, Berlin sent troops to Afghanistan, proclaiming that “German security was being defended on the Hindu Kush”. And if the Germans briefly broke the “convergence criteria” for monetary union, they were far from alone in doing so. One way or the other, it seemed, the transformation in the German state’s behaviour since 1945 had neutralised the structural shift brought about by reunification.

Over the past five years, however, this arrangement has come under considerable strain, primarily for structural reasons. First of all, thanks to reforms by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the German economy – written off for a decade as the sick man of Europe – regained its competitiveness at the expense of southern Europe. Second, the critical and unrecognised shift after 1989 was the growth not in German size but in German security. With the collapse of communism and the enlargement of Nato and the EU, Germany is surrounded for the first time ever by friendly democracies only. This has diminished its interest in security matters, particularly the problem of Russian power further east. As such, Poland and the Baltic states appeal to Berlin for help today as much in vain as the Hungarians and Croats did under the Reichstag more than 500 years ago. They still have Nato, but, given President Obama’s defence cuts and his trumpeted turn towards the Pacific, they wonder for how much longer.

Finally there is a behavioural divide: although the origins of the economic and fiscal crisis vary across Europe, they stem from various forms of bad practice in which the Germans by and large did not indulge. Unlike the Irish and the Spaniards, they did not build huge housing estates for single ownership but were content to rent apartments as they had always done; unlike the Italians, they did not turn their political life into a circus that sapped confidence in state bonds; and unlike the Greeks, they have a political system based (for all its difficulties) on honesty and transparency. To be sure, these countries also suffered from a structural fault in the new European architecture, by which monetary union, designed to supersede the Deutschmark, flooded all member states with cheap credit and fuelled an asset bubble in some of them. So, the great irony is that the casualties of the sovereign and private debt crises on the European periphery are victims, first and foremost, not of German power but of the attempt to constrain it.

The German question has mutated over more than half a millennium. For four centuries Germany was too weak. The question was how to mobilise the Germans in defence of the balance of power, or to prevent them from falling into the hands of a hegemon. For roughly 80 years after unification, Germany was too strong, and either threatened world peace or appeared to do so. Then followed about half a century in which Germany was relatively weak in political terms, and contributed far less to the western cause than it could have done.

Today, Germany is both too strong and too weak, or at least too disengaged. It sits uneasily at the heart of an EU that was conceived largely to constrain German power but which has served instead to increase it, and whose design flaws have unintentionally deprived many other Europeans of sovereignty without giving them a democratic stake in the new order. The question we face now is this: how can the Federal Republic, which is prosperous and secure as never before, be persuaded to take the political initiative and make the necessary economic sacrifices to complete the work of European unity?

One way or the other, the German question persists and will always be with us. This is because, whenever Europe and the world think they have solved it, events and the Germans change the question.

Brendan Simms is professor in the history of international relations at the University of Cambridge. His next book, “Europe: the Struggle for Supremacy – 1453 to the Present” will be published next month by Allen Lane